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A Quick Guide to Personalizing Email and Chat

Electronic communication is hard.

Over email and chat, you don’t have social cues like body language or tone of voice to assist you. Plus, there are “trolls” out there who use the anonymity of the web to take frustrations out on others and say things they wouldn’t dare in person.

So how do you compensate?  Here’s a quick and easy guide to personalizing every interaction.

Enrich contact information

An email address alone offers very little information. At the start of every conversation, enrich the email address and collect a series of public data points about the person, including avatars, title and company, location, and associated social network URLs.

Creepy or manipulative? Not at all. This is simply making up for lost data. In the electronic context, we don’t have pleasantries (name, company, title, handshake, weather, etc.) like in personal meetings. The result is that we start most conversations with an information debt.  Enriching their email address is the quickest way to make up for it.

Location, Location, Location

It’s important in more than just real estate. If the person is outside the United States (especially in a non-English speaking country), take greater care with word choice. Avoid idioms, slang, technical terms, or anything else that might not translate.  During chats, open Google Translate in case you need it. Finally, a culturally appropriate greeting and farewell is always a nice touch (E.g., “Cheers” works well in many countries).

Which brings us to . . .

Don’t Cut the Niceties in the Name of Efficiency

A lot of people think it’s okay to write terse, one-line emails in the name of efficiency and “inbox 0.” This might work when you have a longstanding relationship with the recipient, but for a stranger, it is critical to start and end your message with pleasant remarks. For example, writing “Hi [First Name], Thanks for . . .” at the start and “Have a good one!” at the end. It takes a few extra seconds to write, but it provides the other person with a cue that you are a friendly person who is making an effort. On the other hand, one-line emails invite the other person to assume negative intentions and respond in kind.

Pay Attention to Titles

If the person is a software developer or technical expert, tailor your questions and responses appropriately. In a customer service chat, it might not be a great idea to initially suggest they refresh their browser or clear their cache. On the other hand, if the person has no obvious technical background, you should offer more explanation and specifics. Don’t use use any acronyms or jargon. If the person is a senior manager and asking enterprise-level questions, offer to hand them off to someone of comparable stature in your company.

Don’t Ignore Career History

Just because someone is now a “Senior Solutions Manager” or something equally vague, doesn’t mean they aren’t technical. A quick glance at someone’s employment history on LinkedIn might offers some valuable information about their skills and experience, as well as some opportunities to build common ground (“You went to the University of Kansas? I grew up in Kansas!”). This is another piece of data that might seem intrusive over the web but is commonplace discussion in personal meetings. Grab every advantage you can.

Segment by Influence

Klout Score and Topics are a good way to get an idea of the person’s online influence. Otherwise, you might not have any idea that you are communicating with someone who can move the needle for your product, or who is an expert in the field. As we’ve written several times on this blog, not all users and customers are the same. Some require an extra level of deference and attention to detail.

As a side note, this is also useful when dealing with trolls. You might be able to terminate a chat or series of unpleasant support emails with someone who has no following (in order to spend your time on more valuable issues), but you need to press on with someone who has a high Klout score.

Company Size is Important

Before communicating, do a quick search on the person’s employer. If it’s a Fortune 500 company using a series of enterprise systems and large databases, their needs and use cases will be drastically different from those of a small startup. You can also anticipate a slower decisionmaking cycle and more lawyers. In the sales context, this might lead you to adopt a more informative and nurturing sales pitch than normal. All of these issues will require different language in your email or chat.

You should also consider the company’s core business before communicating. For example, the idea of using social media might be completely foreign to older, more traditional companies with non-technical business models. A cloud startup on the other hand might require far less prodding to adopt a progressive approach.

These tactics won’t work every time.  Some people have no online persona to research.  Others haven’t had their coffee yet and won’t respond to even the most advanced anti-troll measures. However, if you stick to these fundamentals, you’ll win more often than you lose.

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